Review: Beyond Belief by Hugh Mackay

Beyond Belief by Hugh Mackay is about religion in Australia – or perhaps “the artist formerly known as religion”. Formal religious observance in Australia has been dropping since the 50s, a significant proportion of the population say they have “no religion” to census survey questions and many of those that call themselves Christian only attend church on Christmas and New Year.

To the devout, this is a problem to be remedied. However Mackay is both a self-described “Christian Agnostic” and social researcher / cultural commentator who has plied his trade for decades. He has interviewed many Australians over the years and takes their beliefs (or lack of them) seriously. The book is peppered with quotes from the interviews and these portray a complex, paradoxical state of affairs – with people sating their need for believing, behaving, belonging, meaning, identity, ecstatic experience, and comfort in a myriad of ways.

The two standout chapters are on the relationship that Australians have with organised Christianity – tl;dr version: it’s complicated – (“Anyone for Church?”) and what the heck Spiritual But Not Religious means (“SBNR”). Richly described and empathetic, they reach into underexplored facets of Australian life.

The later chapters in the book resonate less with me. In them, Mackay discussed the nature of god, evidence for the existence of a deity, and ends by laying out his moral and ethical vision for Australia (the spirit of loving kindness). The agnostic takes to the pulpit. It’s not that I disagree with his point of view. Rather, as he moves away from his field work, his observations become less distinctive and grounds and more Christmas Card. It seems that writers on religion and society are not tempted with the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead the serpent offers the Indigestible Chicken Nugget of Theology.

Nevertheless, a book well worth reading.

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